Today in History: John Wilkes Booth Performs for Abraham Lincoln

Shapell Manuscript FoundationJohn Wilkes Booth, the famous assassin who shot President Abraham Lincoln, considered himself a spy for most of his life.

The Shapell Manuscript Foundation explains that “his brains, he said, were worth twenty men, his money worth a hundred and best of all, with his profession, and his fame, he had a free pass everywhere. He told his sister how he moved as a spy among Union armies and, in the most distinguished Northern society, gathered intelligence.”

Eventually, Booth came up with a desperate plan to kidnap the president of the United States. But when a better opportunity presented itself, the actor set up the perfect scene for an assassination. He wrote a letter to John Ford, the owner of Ford’s Theater in Washington, arranging to appear in a play in November.

The letter, dated September 17th 1863, reads:

Dear John

Your telegraph just rec’d:. Now that I understand it. All right. Book me for Nov 2d: for two weeks. I will be there and I will keep the two following weeks open a time longer. there may be a chance for Baltimore then, or you may want me to keep on in Washington. But consider the two weeks from Nov 2d settled. With best wishes

I am Yours Truly


Remembering Abe Lincoln and his Son on Father’s Day

Today, the third Sunday of June, is Father’s Day. Established in honor of fathers and fatherhood, the day compliments Mother’s Day which is celebrated in May.

Father figures and their relationships with their children are prominent throughout history. One little-known yet poignant story in American history is the bond between President Abraham Lincoln and his youngest son, Tad.

Surrounded by war, desolation and insanity, and mourning the loss of a son, Lincoln found comfort in his free-spirited 12-year old, whom he could hardly control. The boy was notoriously known for his tricks and stubborness, but his father defended his actions, saying “Let him run.”

“There’s time enough yet for him to learn his letters and get pokey,” he would say. “It is my pleasure that my children are free – happy and unrestrained by parental tyranny. Love is the chain whereby to lock a child to its parent.”

Lincoln was known to request small gifts for his son as well. The Shapell Manuscript Foundation has a handwritten note from the president asking Chief of Engineers General Delafield to present his son with a map or two, and several other exist that request a pistol, or a wagon, or various other items.

After Lincoln’s murder, Tad revealed a level of sentiment and depth when he asked a White House visitor if he thought his father had gone to heaven. When he received an affirmative answer he said:

“I’m glad he has gone there, for he was never happy after he came here. This was not a good place for him.” He also showed true self-awareness and understanding, adding, “I must learn to take care of myself now. Yes, Pa is dead, and I am only Tad Lincoln now, little Tad, like other little boys. I’m not a president’s son now. I won’t have many presents anymore.”


Oprah Discusses Lincoln with Spielberg, Day-Lewis

abraham-lincoln-movie-reviewRecently, onOprah’s Next Chapter,” Oprah Winfrey interviewed Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis about playing Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s most recent movie.

Daniel Day-Lewis explained, during the interview, that he believes it’s important to take time off between projects. As he said,I would very soon become threadbare if I were only lurching from one film set to another without any nourishment.” Spielberg wanted to film the movie in three months time; Day-Lewis agreed to one year.

As Spielberg explained during the interview, “It was a conditional yes. It was, ‘Yes, I want to work with you. I want to play Abraham Lincoln in Tony Kushner’s script, but I want a year. Not just because I need a year to prepare for it, but I have a life. And I can do this in a year.’”

Interestingly, in the interview, Spielberg brought up Lincoln’s character flaw of favoring one child, Tad, over another, Robert. Many sources have pointed to this conflict and to this short falling of Lincoln’s. In one letter that President Abraham Lincoln wrote to General Grant, he asked Grant “as a friend” for Robert to serve as a member of Grant’s “military family with some nominal rank.” This is certainly a concession that Lincoln ended up making for the son who begged to be able to be of service during the war.

Day-Lewis explained how he saw the conflict between Lincoln and Robert. As Day-Lewis said to Oprah,

“When Robert, his first son, was born, Lincoln was on the judicial circuit in Illinois which took him away from home for six months at a time. He was an absentee father and absentee husband. It’s very hard to make that work. Something’s just occurred to me: A real character flaw is implicitly a flaw that we don’t recognize in ourselves.”

The movie “Lincoln” has become a powerful piece and a great way to offer a history lesson to today’s children about leadership, character flaw and forgiveness.

What is Presidents Day?

Presidents Day has come to an end, and with it the amazing sales and shopping sprees that are associated with the three-day weekend. In a generation where knowledge is so easily accessed, it seems rather sad that the true reason for the day is little known. Many assume the day is to commemorate America’s presidents, but the tradition was initially founded in honor of the United States’ patriarch, President George Washington, on his birthday, February 20th. In fact, though the day is known as Presidents Day, or President’s Day, it is officially known as Washington’s Birthday.

President Rutherford B. Hayes signed the law for the federal holiday in 1879, and only federal workers of the District of Columbia were affected. In 1885, the holiday was extended to federal workers in thirty-eight states by President Grover Cleveland.

A century later, according to Congressional Record, the holiday was moved to the third Monday in February. The change came in order to reduce governmental employee absenteeism, as well as to provide citizens with more family time and increase industrial and commercial production. The same move was made for Columbus, Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

As for the name of the Day, the change was suggested by Representative Robert McClory, who believed the holiday should commemorate both Washington and President Abraham Lincoln. The opposition to the Presidents Day amendment took the form of William Moore McCulloch, who claimed it “would be unwise. Certainly, not all Presidents are held in the same high esteem as the Father of our Country. There are many who are not inclined to pay their respects to certain Presidents.”

Though today the holiday is known as Presidents Day, the amendment to the bill actually fell short of the required votes, and the name was not officially changed. Still, federal holidays only affect the District of Columbia and the Federal Government, and so the individual states have since decided their own legal holidays.

States including California, Texas, Alaska, Massachusetts and others celebrate President’s Day in honor of both Washington and Lincoln, while others commemorate Washington’s birthday alone.


Lincoln’s Humility Memorialized in Shapell Manuscript Foundation Letter

Happy Birthday Abraham Lincoln

Today marks the 203 anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, and one of the country’s most beloved. The Between the Lines project of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, offers several documents that help to shed some light on the special character of Lincoln that makes him such a favorite among all the American presidents.

As we all know, only too well, this year is an election year, and candidates right and left, liberal and conservative, wish to be seen as men of integrity, honesty and character. But who, more than any other of the US presidents, stands out as a model of these praiseworthy attributes other than Lincoln, whom today’s candidates can’t help but pale in comparison to?

But is that how Lincoln saw himself? According to original letters of Lincoln in the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s collection, Lincoln’s self-identity was of a man of humble character from a humble background. Lincoln saw himself as unexceptional, revealing that his egalitarianism was intrinsic, and the golden rule was the standard by which he behaved.  Lincoln’s modesty was so profound that he wrote, in 1859, “I do not think myself fit for the presidency.”

In one letter, written to the Honorable William D. Kelley, the Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, Lincoln accepts the honor having a law book dedicated to him with an inscription, but only if, “that inscription may be in modest terms, not representing me as a man of great learning, or a very extraordinary one in any respect.”

Lincoln’s humility was an extremely rare thing among politicians, as it is still today. This is one of the fundamental reasons why Walt Whitman said of Lincoln that he was, “”the grandest figure on the crowded canvas of the drama of the nineteenth century.”

Manuscripts Bring History to Life

Historians involved in research on a unique subject, historical period or particular historical figure rely heavily on original manuscripts for their information. What better way is there to penetrate into the underlying causes, small events, and other factors that could have influenced the unfolding history, or which describe the people and events in a direct and accessible manner?

Anyone interested in American history, especially if he is focused on learning more about Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, or the Civil War Period, would do well to visit the Shapell Manuscript Foundation. In this ever-expanding collection a person would never tire of the discoveries made there.

One recently added item in the Shapel Manuscript Foundation collection is a letter in Abraham Lincoln’s own hand, which, in a straightforward and almost mundane way, testifies to the strength of Lincoln’s character and the degree of his honesty. The letter, penned and sent by President Lincoln to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, and dated April 5, 1861, corrects the mistake which the treasury had made that resulted in Lincoln receiving four days of pay on  days in which he did not actually work.

Another delightful treasure in the collection of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation is Lincoln’s second photo taken during the time when he first began to grow his beard. It is the first photo of then president–elect Lincoln with a full beard, and was taken on January 13, 1861 in Springfield, Illinois. The photo is signed by Lincoln with the date, January 26, 1861, the date on which it was given as a gift to Lincoln’s dear friend, the sculptor Thomas D. Jones.

Other manuscript collections abound. As one more example, if you wanted to learn something, or even a lot, about the growth of Jazz in Chicago, all you would need to do is turn to the Chicago Jazz Archive. This repository for manuscripts relating to the birth and early growth of Chicago Jazz began  in 1976, is housed in the Library of the University of Chicago, and has expanded to include recordings, publications, photos, posters, articles, ticket stubs and many other relevant materials which bring the world of early Jazz to life.

Anyone with a penchant for history, whether it is of the more traditional kind, or the more original, can easily turn to such valuable collections like the Shapell Manuscript Foundation or the Chicago Jazz Archive, and experience the past coming  alive.